“birth is the first hard frost”

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

38 of 100: In the Field Between Us by Molly McCully Brown & Susannah Nevison (2020, Persea Books)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • This book of poems is a collaboration between Molly McCully Brown and Susannah Nevison, who exchange letters with one another in verse. It was recommended to me by Jill a few months back, and just recently, she and I have started our own correspondence. We’ve done exchanges like this before (and I’ve written in this way with Beth McQuillen and Ren Powell), but it’s been a long while in all cases, and it feels good to hear the voice in me that speaks to others directly. I’m craving meaningful connection so much right now, and that voice seems vital to it. Even though I haven’t been alone during the pandemic, there’s something about it that feels lonely… and not just the physical isolation we’re still navigating in many settings. Something else. Perhaps fear is a solo flight even during a global event?
  • That doesn’t stop us, of course, from seeking company. As Brown says in an interview in The Rumpus, “The epistolary form allows the text to navigate this painful, lonely space with an immense amount of company and intimacy. Every time a voice calls, there’s an answering voice.” Yes, please. Dear poets, dear Jill — thank you for keeping me company.
  • I also like how, in that same interview, Brown describes the themes in In the Field Between Us:  “lifelong, significant, relatively violent medical intervention. It’s an experience that one has to go through alone. It’s inherently singular and alienating. It divides you from other people in the world and from prior versions of yourself.” Isn’t that such a stunning way to consider life — and body — altering experiences? That they divide you even from yourself. The poems in this book grapple with all the versions of the self, as they are created, as they are destroyed. Embodying reality in any given moment, as we are aware more sometimes than others, is a moving target. 
  • Even early on in my current correspondence with Jill, I’m hyper aware of the interplay between the universal and the specific. Of course, that space has always been our territory as poets, but for Jill and me — and it seems for Brown and Nevison — knowing one another outside the poems means we have inside information. The challenge is to translate that in a way that’s not only intimate for the letter writers but also the readers. Jill and I are still finding our way, but I think the Brown and Nevison did a nice job with it.

Lines I want to remember:

  • “The coffin in my chest / blows open in the wind, / and for once I think I know / what it’s like to be without / all our dead and heavy things.”
  • “my body’s always wished it were wilder, / Maybe that’s why there’s always howling / in the distance”
  • “I have begged to be found out. Now / some maker readies the camera, readies / the compass, readies the knife, and all of me / rallies to pull the curtains closed, to cover my face.”
  • “The hive of bees is wingless, / heavy as an anesthetic, radio-loud. / Everything’s earthbound and nothing / has ever been whole. The better / beast is just a fiction”
  • “we’re sheltered the way wild, loved things are when / they are new: a nest of winter grass, a little down, / some hollow where the weather strains to reach.”
  • “will we stay tangled / in the wire, … / twist / the wire into shapes … / if we call them ours, if we make / such wire children and string / them up, if we rust, if our children / are wire stars above us”
  • “It’s enough that / I can’t remember the shapes / of the things I’ve loved / or the things I’ve made / in one body or another, / so I must make them up: / here is a heart-shaped hoof. / Here is a hoof-shaped heart.”
  • “I comb the beach / for shapes I recognize, and every night / my children don’t wash up I think  / there’s still a chance for them
  • “It snows in this strange city. / I’m bewildered by the white, / the way it makes one perfect / creature of the place, one body / built up soundless overnight”
  • “I distrust the weather in my / body”
  • “Would you say that birth / is the first hard frost / we somehow just survive, / and … learn spring isn’t fast / or kind, but another way / the world takes stock / of what’s allowed to stay?”
  • “what would you weather just to call yourself alive?”
  • “the living things extend their necks into the air, bear all that wanting”

What others have said:

  • from Publishers Weekly: “In this ethereal series of epistolary poems, two disabled poets build their own language of imagery and landscape where trees ask the question the speakers relentlessly examine: ‘what would you weather just to call yourself alive?’ In Brown and Nevison’s intimate correspondence, the body is a site of complex dualities. The poets build a refuge, a place in which they can exist in many forms, sometimes even without their bodies”
  • from Ilya Kaminsky on the book’s back cover: “This is one of the most unexpected and inspiring poetic collaborations in recent years, wherein disability becomes something much larger than what the mainstream publishing culture usually imposes on it. From shared pain and loss arises a longing for connectivity with each other, with the natural world, and with speech itself. The poets’ desire for communion, expressed in dazzling lyrical language, wins me over. This is a beautiful, urgent book.”
  • from The Millions: “A unique and memorable collaboration that considers friendship, compassion, and the vulnerability and resiliency of our bodies.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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